World War II games are big business and don't we all bloody know it?
I don't mind the things; I'd just rather they left me alone. After all, there's only so much stirring music, black and white filmreel and pointing crappy rifles at comedy foreigners whilst running across a field that any one person can take, and my eyes are so used to glazing over at the sight of the words "authentic" or "military advisor" that I've had kilns installed in the lids. Even being told, "Fortunately, this one is slightly different," sets off warning klaxons the likes of which'd rouse any home guard no matter how brandied up.
Goodish news then: The Outfit could be set just about anywhere. (Ignore the klaxons please.) You're on a trek through France on the trail of some General who burns entire villages of women and children, and instead of being all grim and serious about this while harps play in the background you're controlling an incredibly gung-ho Pixar-esque squad of Rambo-people, who aren't busily trying to come over all Wilfred Owen while throwing grenades at comedy Germans and OH THE HUMANITY, but are actually talking about TAKING THAT BASTARD OUT and spouting other, similar platitudes. I think the last time anybody openly admitted that it was okay not to take WWII utterly seriously was Return to Castle Wolfenstein, so fair play to Relic for that. It'd be nice if it hadn't immediately enrolled at the Z-list action-film school of musclebound earnest gravitas, but it's something.
Besides, that's not really the point: the point is the killin'. The Outfit is one of those third-person action games with RTS pretensions. You pick one of three characters and as you make your way through each level you can use a "Destruction On Demand" menu to conjure up a squad of supporting troops, some gunnery emplacements, tanks, halftracks and 4x4s, and even the odd airstrike. Whatever you want's flown in pretty swiftly by aerial support.
Your ability to summon things is tied into a pair of things: at the most basic level, your funds, which are built up by killing Nazis and securing or destroying objectives; and as you want to branch out, particular structures you can capture around the map. Pick up a motor pool tent, for example, and you can summon more motorised contraptions, while armouries allow for tougher emplacements.
Each of the characters you can choose has his own individual strengths and silly name, too - Tommy Mac has a machinegun and chucks sticky bombs; Deuce Williams has a bazooka with a pistol on standby and frag grenades; JD Tyler has a nice big flamethrower, and Molotov cocktails just in case that wasn't doing it. Whichever you choose, you can amble gently along producing units to back up your push for objectives - like destroying German outposts, securing a church, defending an area - or sprint for as long as your stamina bar holds out by holding RB. Command abilities extend to engineering and troop direction too, sort of: point at a river and press A and someone flies in a bridge; point at a creaky halftrack and hit A and someone goes to repair it; point at an abandoned emplacement and you can have someone man it by, yep, doing the A thing.
Missions aren't just a straightforward trek from A to B to C, either; typically the Germans will annoy you by going after B again once you're done with C, and since B is probably your motor pool you'll have to be careful with your surviving tank or 4x4 until you can reclaim it. Fortunately, at least in the early levels, installing an emplacement on a hill or making sure you're not overexposing yourself to fire is all you need. Things presumably get a bit more tactical later on.
It shouldn't be impossible to make progress though, because death isn't handled in the traditional way: although your unit acts as a CO to the others, death just means respawning, and you can adjust where you respawn (and, thus, how far you'll have to leg it to stop the Germans overrunning your previously secured objectives) by capturing strategic objective points, which act as spawn points.
Sub-objectives regularly come into play. You'll be asked to secure strategic objectives quickly so that parachute drops know where to aim for to reinforce you - make sure the troops land successfully and you'll secure some extra kudos. The Outfit also has around 40 of the 360's "achievements" to unlock, and unlike most of its kin it actually lays these out neatly within the game interface rather than hauling the mucky Guide box overlay out across the action.
It's an interesting tactical setup, then, and pleasingly divorced from the traditionally weighty atmosphere of a World War II shooter - or at least, a bit too gung ho to really stand up to one. But is it any fun? Well, yes and no. There's certainly something attractive about trying to circle round to flank a squad of annoying Germans, getting a bit caught out and being able to call in a tank to run them over with. On the other hand, having to rumble back to past objectives to resecure them - not at a particularly exciting pace either - can be a bit tedious. Also, while the levels are huge and there's nothing wrong with the visuals which are slick and nicely stylised, it's as though you're a magnet to the rest of the war's iron filings. There's this sense that you're the only truly significant and persistent unit on the battlefield and everything follows you around. You feel like the war just stops when you die. Contradictorily, you don't always feel like you're doing much damage even though you've got a bazooka on your shoulder. Grab a tank or halftrack and you do, but movement control on the left analogue stick is a bit squirmy right now.
Hopefully as the campaign digs in, it'll get a bit tougher and more exotic - and of course it's worth noting that this is a preview build and probably several weeks or months old. There's certainly great potential for Relic's particular blend of third-person action and strategic elements, and the developer's success in the RTS genre bodes well for The Outfit's longer term prospects - including multiplayer, which I haven't had the chance to test out yet due to a scarcity of opposition at the preview stage. Expect a review sometime between now and its March 17th release date. Complete with some excellent "wardrobe" jokes, which I would have done today but I've got to go to the shop.
The Outfit is an Xbox 360 exclusive due out on March 17th.